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Around globe, fears of aging vary widely

Email|Print| Text size + By Alice Dembner
Globe Staff / November 5, 2007

Faced with the prospect of getting older, Germans worry most about losing their memory or their mental alertness. The Dutch fear gaining weight, and Thais worry about fading eyesight.

Americans, by contrast, don't agree on just one major worry - they spread their top concern among loss of energy, trouble caring for themselves, memory loss, and weight gain. And Egyptians face the oncoming years with aplomb, reporting relatively few concerns.

These are the findings of an international survey, conducted by GfK Roper Consulting, an international market research firm, that shed light on cultural differences in views of aging. Increasingly, scientific research shows that many problems that people associate with growing older can be avoided with proper healthcare, exercise, and diet. But that hasn't stopped many people from worrying.

"There's fascinating global variation in what concerns people," said Michael Gusmano, co-director of the World Cities Project of the International Longevity Center, which compares health and aging in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.

The survey results "really highlight the need to understand the institutional and cultural contexts of aging," said Gusmano, who was not involved in the poll.

Surprisingly, he said, people's expectations for their lives don't seem to match up with their nation's economic or health status. For example, nations with healthier populations and more financial resources might be expected to have fewer worries about aging, but that's not necessarily true.

More than 39,000 people in 31 nations - age 13 and older - were interviewed in person for about 70 minutes on a variety of topics related to consumer issues and lifestyle, according to Diane Crispell, executive editor of the consulting firm. On the aging question, they were asked to identify which of 18 conditions they worried most about. When the views of those 50 and older were separated out, they showed higher concerns overall about independence and mental sharpness, but less about appearance. For the most part, however, views within each country were similar across the age spectrum.

Concern about aging was widespread in several European nations, including Sweden and Spain, as well as in Japan. Gusmano found the Swedes' worries particularly surprising because of the overall health of the nation and its generous healthcare benefits.

Egyptians' lack of concern left the researchers guessing. Crispell said the surveyed population in Egypt was more urban and upscale than in some Western nations, and may reflect the view that residents have the resources to protect themselves from problems. Or perhaps the strong, family-based culture and a population with relatively few older folks promotes a more positive view, she said.

Gusmano had another thought: Perhaps Egyptians think problems with aging are inevitable, so why worry.

The survey also turned up interesting cultural quirks. In Belgium, 41 percent were concerned about incontinence, the highest level of concern in any surveyed nation about that problem. Brazil took the prize for most concern about losing sexual drive and losing teeth. The greatest concern about losing hair or having it go gray was recorded in India.

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